If you're a follower of this site you know I love my pre-code movies. As much as that has to do with all of the usual reasons highlighted by sinful content and rapid pace it also has just as much to do with their natural setting: The Great Depression.
While the Depression often grips films from the entire decade it's never as prevalent as it is during the early 30's where it delightfully (for us at least) coincides with the looser censors of the period. We see spirits crushed across the spectrum whether we start from the gutter or work our way down to it from loftier origins and oftentimes there's no happy ending to blunt the experience. Not to be a downer, but it's so much more real that way.
While I'm planning on a post containing mini-reviews of several film related biographies sometime soon (let's put the pressure on: sometime this week), I'm almost always reading more than one book at time and they're not always movie books. But, and I'm sure you've experienced this as well, the content often manages to find a way to relate back to classic movies whether it has anything to do with them or not.
Such was the case when I was reading Giants of Enterprise by Richard S. Tedlow earlier today. Published by HarperBusiness in 2001 it an extremely readable collection of seven linked biographies of classic American entrepreneurs through U.S. history: Andrew Carnegie, George Eastman, Henry Ford, Thomas J. Watson, Sr., Charles Revson, Sam Walton and Robert Noyce, in that order. I'm a little over halfway through the book and the passage that made me stop to compose this post was found in the section on Revson, founder of Revlon cosmetics.
It is a very plainspoken capsule of just how bad times were in 1932, the year Revson and his partners founded Revlon:
These men chose what was probably the worst single year (with the possible exception of 1933) in the twentieth century in which to found a business in the United States. Nineteen thirty-two was the trough of the Great Depression. Real gross national product had fallen a calamitous 26.8 percent since 1929 and would decline further the following year. Investment, a key barometer of the confidence with which businesspeople face the future, sank from $16.2 billion in 1929 to a sickening $0.8 billion (measured in 1929 dollars) in 1932 and would fall yet further the following year. From an index level of 100 in July 1926, the stock prices on the New York Stock Exchange peaked at 216 in September of 1929. In March 1932, when Revlon was founded, this index stood at 54. By June, it dropped to 34. The worst blow was the employment situation. Three percent of the workforce was unemployed in 1929. A staggering one-quarter could not find work the year Revlon was founded, the worst performance in the history of the American economy (250).
That's what the public was living through during the time of our pre-code favorites.
I've discussed this a little before, but those times make me especially fond of those multigenerational tales set throughout the latter half of the 19th Century up in to the modern 1930's. These films not only related to modern audiences by showing them that we've done this before--in living memory for some, often set in 1873 and/or 1893--but we came out of it then and we'll make it through again this time.
After the past few years we've experienced in our own timelines we get to experience a bonus dimension to these tales, an even greater perspective eighty years after the fact.
Such stories might still have the downer ending, but can be uplifting through those allusions to the better times to come.
I highly recommend Giants of Enterprise to anyone with an interest in the seven men named above. I originally picked it up off Amazon because I found myself stuck for too long with my bookmark halfway through David Nasaw's immense Carnegie biography. I wanted more of a capsule bio and was sold on Giants of Enterprise as soon as I saw that George Eastman was included as well.
Funny, I would have imagined if anything from Giants of Enterprise made it to this site I'd be quoting the Eastman chapter, not from the chapter about the founder of Revlon!
- Tedlow, Richard S. Giants of Enterprise: Seven Business Innovators and the Empires They Built. New York: HarperBusiness, 2001.